CLAS251 Scientific Terminology

Monmouth College Monmouth, Illinois

Instructor: Thomas J. Sienkewicz (



The American Heritage Dictionary 3rd ed. lists 103 chemical elements.

Of these, 45 are made from Latin or Greek base words.

Approximately 31 from Greek, and 14 from Latin.

The names from Latin and Greek were not just chosen at random. There was a definite characteristic that made these names applicable. For instance, both bromine (35) and osmium (76) are derived from Greek words that mean "stink"; phosphorus means "light-bearing." Many identify colors associated with the element [e.g. beryllium 4) (and praseodymium (59) are from Greek words which mean green; iridium (77) = the Latin rainbow; rhodium (45) = the Greek rose, and rubidium (37) = the Latin red].

The names of 9 elements are derived from characters in Classical mythology.

For instance, mercury (80) is very fluid, so it was named after the fleet-footed messenger of the gods.

Promethium (61) is named after the Titan who gave humans fire.

Both the earth (tellurium, 52) and the moon (selenium, 34) have elements associated with them. All of the planets in our solar system are named from mythological deities, and three of the chemical elements draw their name from these planets. The focal point here is Uranus, from which uranium (92) is named. Neptune comes next to Uranus as a planet; therefore, the chemical element next to uranium is neptunium (93). And second to Uranus is the planet Pluto and the second element beyond uranium is plutonium (94), Iris, the goddess of the rainbow, gave her name to iridium (77).

Perhaps the most fascinating mythological names are these last two:

1. Tantalus could not drink water, so an element that does not an element that does not absorb water nor dissolve in most acids was named tantalum (73).

2. Tantalus had a daughter named Niobe, thus an element found in association with tantalum (73) is called niobium (41).

Another seven elements are derived from Latin or Greek names of places.

For example, lutetium (71) comes from Lutetia, the Roman name for Paris, and magnesium (12) and manganese (25) from Magnesia in Greece.

This makes a total of 6l (almost two thirds) which have an affiliation with Latin or Greek.

There are also two from characters in Norse mythology: thorium (90) from Thor, and vanadium (23) from an alternate name for the goddess Freya.


Chemical elements are also named after places, including countries, cities, continents, and people.

20 elements have names derived from places:

A. National or continental:

americum (94)

europium (63)

francium (87)

germanium (32)

polonium (84) (so named by Madame Curie to honor her native country)

ruthenium (44) (from the Latin name for Russia) scandium (21)

thulium (69) (because it was discovered in North Scandinavia, and the Greeks called the farthermost regions Thoule)

indium (49)

B. Towns [mostly where discovered, and Scandinavia has its share of these]:

1. Scandinavian cities:

holmium (67) (from the latin form of Stockholm) erbium (68) (from a town in Sweden)

Yttrium (39), terbium (65), and ytterbium (70) are all named after Ytterby, a town in Sweden. Note clipping of name.

2. Other towns:

lutetium (71) (from the the Latin name for Paris)

strontium (38) (from a town in Scotland, where it was first found in the lead mines)

berkelium (97)

C. Other place names:

rhenium (75) (from the Rhine)

copper (29) (from Cyprus, famous for its copper mines)

californium (98)

Nine of the remaining 21 elements are based on people's names. The Scandinavians, Russians, and French rate two each in this category:

A. Scandinavian

1. gadolinium (64)- so named by a Swiss chemist who discovered it in gadonlinite, which was named from a Finnish chemist. Gadolin (1760-1812)

2. nobelium (102)- from the Swedish inventor of dynamite and originator of the Nobel prize. It was so called because this element was first discovered at the Nobel Institute in Stockholm.

B. Russian

1. mendelevium (101)- from the Russian chemist Mendeleev [pronounce men - de - la - ef]

2. samarium (62)- from Colonel Samarski, a Russian mining official

C. French

1. curium (96)- of course from Pierre Curie and his Polish wife Marie

2. gallium (31)- this element was discovered by a French chemist whose first name was Lecoq [the cock]. Since the Latin word for cock is gallus, and the Latin word for France is Gallia, this name fitted in two ways.

D. The other three scientists from whom elements were named did most of their work in the United States:

1. lawrencinium (103)- from the physicist, E. O. Lawrence

2. einsteinium (99)- from the German- born Albert Einstein

3. fermium (100)- from Enrico Fermi, born in Italy but lived in the United States from the age of 37.

Counting places and people, we get a total of 29 elements named from proper names. When we take into consideration that there was some overlapping in the use of place names and Latin and Greek, we find that we have left only ten elements named from sources other than Latin and Greek or proper names. These are boron (5), cobalt (27), nickel (28), potassium (19), zinc (30), strontium (38), zirconium (40), tin (50), tungsten (74), and bismuth (83).

New Elements:

Several other elements have been discovered but their names names are not yet settled by international agreement. These include

104 Named rutherfordium by American scientists after Ernest Rutherford, a New Zealand-born pioneer in atomic physics or dubnium

105 Named hahnium for Otto Hahn, discoverer of nuclear fission or joliotium, for Frederic Joliot-Curie, another pioneer of nuclear physics

106 seaborgium, named after Glenn T. Seaborg, director of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and creator and co-discoverer of plutonium, or rutherfordium (see 104)


108 hassium from the German province Hesse or hahnium (see 105)




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